Oh what fun we had, as grey skies turned to blue and warm sunshine blessed us right through to a clear-skied sunset, complete with perfect crescent moon.
These Madness events have a certain ritual flavour about them, with the mandatory red fez hat as ubiquitous as the plastic trilby and two-tone chequer patterns. The emphasis is definitely on partying, right from the get go, the get go on this occasion being the endearingly blasphemous fake religiosity of OMG It’s The Church (brilliant slogan: “If you don’t sin, Jesus died for nothin’”).
The genius of OMGITC is to take the basic pub covers-combo format of singer plus keyboard player and crank it up with three feisty backing vocalists, some cheesy costumes and the shtick of a depraved Southern Baptist revival meeting. The result was a splendidly ironic cheese fest that, while perfectly straight faced, never took itself seriously for a moment. Things were slightly less clear with Bjorn Again, however, who undermined the reverence of a tribute act – impeccable Abba cover versions, appropriate hair/beards/costumes – with rather silly faux-Swedish accents.
After these party-starters, however, we headed into Caribbean territory with Trojan Sound System. They slightly underestimated a Bristol audience by proclaiming that they would bring us “unheard sounds” before playing a set of vintage ska and reggae that ran from Armagidion Time to No No No and closely resembled Daddy G’s DJ Kicks album selection. They had good versions, however, and vocalists Superfour and Chucky Bantan dealt some classic MC lines.
They were very much a warm-up act, however, for Rodigan & The Outlook Orchestra’s ambitious journey through the history of Jamaican music from bluebeat to dancehall reggae. This could have been dreadfully twee or a pointless over-egging of the music but actually turned out to be a real treat thanks to careful and respectful arrangements that let the bass and drum rhythm core define the music. Full marks also to the sound engineers for ensuring that lush strings and a punchy brass section were creative additions to the sound without overwhelming it.
The eminent Mr Rodigan presided like an earnest school teacher, though he gave full recognition to Bristol as a longstanding “reggae city”, while a cavalcade of vocalists tackled Jamaican dance classics. These included Desmond Decker’s 007 (Bitty McLean), Millie’s My Boy Lollipop (Hollie Cook), Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves (Kiko Bun) and the Abyssinian’s Satta Massangana (Bitty McClean), while veteran MC Horseman gave a master class in dancehall diddly-diddly chatting in numbers like Conroy Smith’s Dangerous. Naturally it culminated in Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, given rich brass harmonies and a plaintive soprano sax rendition that left the crowd to provide a satisfying mass singalong finale. It had all added up to a great artistic achievement that enobled the music selected.
And then, by some strange alchemy, the crowd seemed to double in size and the energy hiked up just as saxophonist Lee Thompson swaggered across the stage and Suggs proclaimed we were going One Step Beyond. Yes, it was Madness and there was no doubting that this was what people had really come to see.
The dark suited man in front of me wasn’t the only one to leap into ‘nutty’ dancing mode, knee-high stepping and dropping to the floor in a frenzy as the band ran through hits like Embarrassment and My Girl. For the band it was the end of a tour and, after 40 years in the game, it was maybe understandable that there was an element of world weariness in Suggs’ banter. It was laudable that he still ranted about the Bullingdon Club elites running things, or the fact that there is homelessness in a rich society, but it was probably more important for the crowd to hear the jangling piano intro for Driving In My Car.
Hit followed hit, each gobbled up by an insatiable audience until the classic It Must Be Love heralded the inevitable encore pairing of the tune Madness and Night Boat To Cairo, a final redemption for all those red fez hats after some eight hours in the sun. By this point it was clear that Madness were more of an institution than a band, a cultural touchstone of modern Englishness to rival the trooping of the colour or the Henley regatta and, to us in the gathering gloom of the Downs at least, they were the best of the three.
All photos by Phil Watson
Read more: Review: The Downs Festival 2019